Eden and Ever After

The awkward relationship between Christianity and the earth

When I first learned that a possible Hebrew-to-English translation of Genesis 1:28‘s command for humans to ‘subdue the earth’ is, literally, ‘rape the earth,’ I cheered. At the time, I was writing a paper on the sociological and environmental repercussions of Genesis 1:28, and the information supported my thesis. My Hebrew language classmates, however, were shocked. How could anyone rejoice the raping of the earth?

I thought their opinion naïve. Clearly, over the centuries, someone has rejoiced in destroying the planet. After all, with oil in the ocean, smog in the sky, and a hole in the ozone, the planet is not so pristine. It’s been quite the fall; according to the first chapter of Genesis, God created the heaven and earth to be perfect. But humans have worked to warp creation into whatever suits their fancy. Hence, nowadays, there is grass in the desert, desert in the grasslands, and dirt in our lungs. Many theologians and environmentalists blame human ecological irresponsibility on a selfish reading of Genesis 1:28. Others just blame selfish humans. Either way, the earth is hurt and Christians must respond.

Death by Aristotle?
Like all religions, Christianity was shaped by the culture it developed within and, for Christianity, that culture was Greco-Roman. In the Greco-Roman world, man was viewed as superior to all else. Women, slaves, cows, and trees were viewed as inferior, non-thinking elements that needed to be controlled. Christianity absorbed these ideas and, over time, Christians took charge of the earth’s ‘resource management’ through, for example, the slave trade, shipping, and open pit strip mining. Under the influence of Aristotle and other classical thinkers, Christians have been taught that they are the inheritors of the earth and, therefore, have the right to wring the earth for their benefit.

Rights bring responsibility, however, and modern Christians are beginning to understand that perhaps it was not God’s intention that we destroy the universe. Sallie McFague is one such Christian. In fact, she is a theologian who writes about a Christian ecological consciousness. In her book Super, Natural Christians she suggests that humans stop objectifying nature and, instead, treat nature the way God does. In Genesis, God continually gazes upon creation and is pleased. God appreciates nature. Shouldn’t we?

Jesus Christ, environmentalist
Furthermore, if God created the world, shouldn’t it be an offense against God to hurt the earth? McFague believes Christians should view the earth and all its inhabitants as the body of God. The earth would be sacred. Humans would be sacred. Tadpoles would be sacred. The pointless slaughter of anything would carry heavenly repercussions.

Of course, we could still hunt and harvest—we would just have to do so with care. Jesus, after all, allowed His hungry disciples to pick food. He didn’t, however, allow His disciples to raze the fields. Environmentalism is common sense: be kind to the earth, take what you need, don’t pour paint down the drain. Christians need to look at trees, birds, and bugs, and remember that God not only thinks they’re beautiful but important. They exist with us, not for us. How could a loving God have designed it any other way?